First feature-length movie on the Alamo.
July 4, 2008
A historic film and a painful treat for Fairbanks fans
It's a painful treat because Doug is in blackface here, as well as in a small and uncredited role. He spends most of his brief screen time crouched on the floor behind various objects to hide his physique and athletic movements. Sigh.
This is one of the film's several weaknesses (apparently Douglas Fairbanks was under contractual obligation with Griffith, who was unsure what to do with the expensive star at this point), but it is most definitely a historic film, as it is the earliest surviving film and perhaps the first feature film ever made about the Alamo (an earlier film had been made four years earlier, but that only exists today as a series of stills in postcard form, and I'm also not sure if it was a feature).
Most importantly, though, it was released less than 80 years after the actual event, and only 17 years after the end of the Spanish-American War; and so it was made for audiences with a much different view of things. That viewpoint probably has something to do with the extremely negative stereotyping of Mexicans in the film and false propaganda (for example, Santa Ana did allow the women and children to leave the Alamo).
Those are a couple of several major weaknesses of "Martyrs": however, there is a terrific benefit to the movie's relative proximity in time to its subject. Audiences had a better recollection of the actual events and the persons involved.
In this movie, Bowie, Travis, and Crockett are there, of course, but the central character is Deaf Smith (called "Silent" Smith in the movie for some reason), who I had never heard of before in spite of his great importance then (his nickname was "The Texas Spy"). There is a little extra fillip for Fairbanks fans in this, too: Smith is played by none other than Sam De Grasse, a/k/a Prince John in Fairbanks' "Robin Hood."
De Grasse may have gotten the Smith role because of his obvious facial resemblance to Deaf Smith. He plays the role with a rather bear-like and hunched-over set of physical movements and postures, totally unlike Prince John's slim, graceful menace, which may show that he and Griffith also knew that audiences would be familiar with how the real Smith had moved.
De Grasse still shows that same ability to convey motion in stillness and feeling in a look, most notably perhaps when he carefully and slowly reads the poster Santa Ana has ordered put up in San Antonio, and then shows his contempt by spitting on it. He has all the dramatic gestures required of a silent film star down, but Sam De Grasse was one of the few actors back then (Buster Keaton was another) who was also eloquent in restraint and facial expression. What a talented actor he was!
I didn't want to write a book here and so will cut it short. In addition to what's mentioned above, the film's strengths include excellent camera work, given the limitations of the day, and realistic battle scenes overall. The weaknesses also include there being too few actors available to convey the overwhelming numerical superiority of Santa Ana's forces; many misrepresentations of the actual facts as well as the physical appearance of the Alamo (notably, in Smith's total lack of social contact with the Latino circles of those days, which was what made him such a good spy; he was in fact married to a Latina, though in this movie he's dating a blonde Angla. Also, there was no secret passage in the Alamo). And there are limitations based on filming equipment, which is probably why Griffith framed the wide shots of troops attacking the Alamo with a wide border.
There's one problem in particular with this print, and that's the soundtrack. Somebody did a wonderful job with that, and it highlights the movie's occasional epic movements. Unfortunately, it hits the epic note early and stays with it, not reflecting anything else that's happening on the screen. I enjoyed the movie more after turning off the speakers. It's such good music, I'm sorry to say that, but since the movie has its weaknesses, the overall experience would probably be better with a soundtrack that carried us along into the film more.
One more thing and I'll stop: Douglas Fairbanks may have gotten a little of his own back, nine years later, in "The Thief of Bagdad." Remember the scene in that movie where the suitors are setting off to find treasure, and the Mongol Prince tells his flunky to remain behind and build an army within Bagdad's walls? Remember how the flunky is standing behind the Prince at that point, and he bows or something and leaves the Prince's carriage to go back into the city. Well, before he goes out, he puts something on his head, presumably as a disguise.
I've watched it again, just to make sure: it *is* a coonskin hat. If you've seen "Martyrs Of The Alamo," you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.